INSIDE Chico State
0 February 14, 2002
Volume 32 Number 10
  A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico
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  Microbiologist Murray to Speak at CAPE Forum about Bioterrorism

Mass hysteria is no way to respond to threat

“Mass hysteria,” “rationing of health care,” “knee-jerk legislation,” “misspent budgets,” “individual civil liberties versus the common good” — William J. Murray doesn’t mince words when it comes to the dilemmas of bioterrorism. A microbiologist trained in infectious diseases, Murray will share his provocative opinions and proposals in a public talk on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 7:00 pm in Laxson Auditorium.

An associate professor of microbiology at San Jose State University, Murray is engaged in infectious disease research there and also as a visiting scholar at Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Medical Microbiology and Immunology. A recognized expert in infectious diseases, he appeared on television a dozen times during the height of the “anthrax hysteria,” as he termed it.

“The risk of infection is nearly zero,” Murray asserted about the recent anthrax scare. “I have told very frantic fire department captains, police, etc. that this will blow over. I have begged them to stop buying unnecessary equipment and shutting down buildings.” In his talk, he will explain how we can better prepare ourselves psychologically and physically, what the public can do, and how we should get involved in these issues, including educating ourselves.

Infectious disease is poorly understood by the public, Murray said. “This is an issue people feel strongly about but have little information about.” He will provide some general background on the “big threat agents”—the top pathogens that scientists consider most likely to be used in bioterrorism.

He will also evaluate the changing face of terrorism. Modern terrorism has shifted from a political bent to a much more frightening religious one, Murray stated. He will analyze what drives the zeal of terrorists, why bioweapons are an attractive part of their repertoire of terror, and how technology has changed terrorism in the last 20 years.

“This whole issue of bioterrorism epitomizes the double-edge of technology—its potential for great good or great harm. As microbiologists, we are trained to understand how pathogens cause a particular disease and then figure out how to treat the disease, develop vaccines against it, even eliminate it,” said Murray. “Bioterrorism is the opposite of that: purposely making people sick using microbes. This is an uncomfortable position for microbiologists, because the knowledge gained from legitimate research can be turned around and used against us in a very frightening way.”

Ridiculous legislation has been proposed that would shut down microbiology, Murray said. Such “knee-jerk reaction” laws are hard to repeal once they get enacted, he cautioned. “The worst time to make laws is in midst of a crisis.”

He also worries about proposed budgets to combat bioterrorism. “A lot of the budget is going to be misdirected and misspent,” he claimed, on security for public health rather than personnel and programs.

Other concerns include mass inoculation (“probably ill advised”) and the effect of a mass bio-attack on the public health infrastructure (“there will definitely be rationing of health care”). Bioterrorism is a tremendous challenge to society—especially our individual civil liberties—as well as to medicine and public health, Murray said.

Murray’s talk, “Responding Ethically to Bioterrorism,” is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Center for Applied and Professional Ethics (CAPE) and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts. For more information, call Andrew Flescher, CAPE coordinator, at x5534.

Francine Gair

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